Eventos Académicos, 39 ISCHE. Educación y emancipación

Tamaño de fuente: 
Emancipating the Female Body: Sex, Prostitution and Medical Cure in Colonial India, 1841-1924
Tim Allender

Última modificación: 2017-07-16


Renovating the female moral and physical body lay at the core of imperial rhetoric about ‘civilising’ India. Yet, paradoxically, medical education was a male preserve as part of an unremitting masculine raj and its desire to protect its military from local feminine ‘turpitude’. Indian women found themselves in dystopic Lock Hospitals (effectively state-run prisons) having been diagnosed (or misdiagnosed) with infectious venereal diseases. Indian dias (midwives) were especially signalled out for their ‘superstitious’ cleansing fire practices. They were abused in other ways, too, including enforced early marriages to Europeans and state sanctioned scandal about their moral bodies. Some women adapted, including prostitutes who were able to turn their enforced incarceration into profitable business models. Yet, most were damaged by early male medical outreach that had internal to it mentalities about deficit Indian female character and its socialising morbidity.

Many female missionaries, usually associated with the sharp end of the imperial project, were, in fact, responsible for mediating this colonial impasse in the latter nineteenth century, and this paper acknowledges the work, in particular, of Jeffrey Cox (2002) which sees their agency in this alternative frame. Female medical missionaries shaped new female identities, even in traditional Indian purdah (secluded) female communities. They became cultural and social agents who played an important role in the reform movement which aimed to emancipate the female body, albeit within the colonial remit. Their work, and the shaping of their professional identities as medical educators, was through the formation of women’s groups, orphanages, convent outreach and particularly the training of midwives, nurses and female physicians. Their medical ontologies were still unrelentingly Western, even though some of the associated epistemologies had originated in India, and some had been more recently developed by new fields of tropical medical research on the subcontinent. However, the dynamic created by medical missionaries was still powerful: mostly successfully resisting secular, Western, medical feminists on the subcontinent while leading the way (ahead of the metropole) in the professional recognition of female physicians.

Patriarchies still prevailed in colonial India by the late nineteenth century. By 1900 two thirds of missionaries in India were women, yet they appear as mere ‘adjuncts’ even in the published records where medicine was the topic. However, advances in diagnostic techniques, cheaper forms of antiseptic treatments and the cold glare of international scrutiny of published treatment schedules (mostly generated by the work of female medical women), forced the raj to take responsibility for the medical bodies of increasing numbers of Indian women.

By scrutinising colonial paradigms of medical treatment and cure this paper examines the emancipatory processes at work for women on all sides of the racial divides found in colonial India.